Wake up. Check the weather forecast for the day. Cloudy with a chance of showers. Cold. How miserable.
But a dark sky and some spitting rain is nothing. Natural disasters are far more devastating—earthquakes, floods, hurricanes. These can ravage entire cities and states, rendering them largely out of commission for weeks, if not months.
But what if there were something even wider reaching and even longer lasting? An emerging threat that could desolate hundreds of millions of people engulfed in reliance on technology?
Such a threat may now exist in the digital world: a geomagnetic space storm, triggered by a solar eruption, could flare toward Earth and strike our planet. And if it did? Experts at the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s annual meeting said over the weekend that such a storm could disrupt myriad major technologies, from crashing the stock market to causing mass power outages. .
This would largely be accomplished by scorching the numerous satellites, as well as overwhelming high-voltage transformers with electrical currents and short-circuit energy grids—meaning the havoc could last several months, and a full recovery could take up an entire decade.
Quoth The Province:
The situation will only get more dire because the solar cycle is heading into a period of more intense activity in the coming 11 years.
“This is not a matter of if, it is simply a matter of when and how big,” said National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration administrator Jane Lubchenco. “The last time we had a maximum in the solar cycle, about 10 years ago, the world was a very different place. Cell phones are now ubiquitous; they were certainly around (before) but we didn’t rely on them for so many different things,” she said.
“Many things that we take for granted today are so much more prone to the process of space weather than was the case in the last solar maximum.” The experts admitted that currently, little that can be done to predict such a storm, much less shield the world’s electrical grid by doing anything other shutting off power to some of the vulnerable areas until the danger passes.
The root of the digital world’s vulnerability is in global positioning systems, further supplemented by our many reliances on day-to-day technologies that function only with the assistance of outer space satellites, such as cellphones and radio.
A solar flare neared us last week. It was exceptionally powerful, but the magnetic fields were aligned parallel, minimizing potential damage. We may not be so lucky next time, the experts warn, but there is little point in panicking.
These storms cannot be accurately forecasted, but experts can at least identify when conditions are ripe for such storms to occur. Said storms have been observed since the mid 1800s, with a couple over the past several decades inflicting tangible damage to our planet, including a widespread blackout across Quebec, and cutting off long-distance telephone communication in the U.S.
But the world has transformed dramatically over the past decade, and it is almost unfathomable to concoct a depiction of how damaging the next geomagnetic space storm striking our planet could be. It is as Stephan Lechner, director of the European Commission Joint Research Center, duly notes: “We are far from understanding all the implications here.”
Photo credit: NASA